Many Americans first heard of Parler, a right-wing favored social media platform, just recently. A liberal friend who follows Parler sent me a screenshot of the following post by a self-described, but anonymous, ‘colonel’ from Jan. 5-6, 2021:

“So over the next 24 hours, I would say, lets get our personal affairs in order. Prepare Our weapons, and then go hunting. Lets hunt these cowards down like the Traitors that each of them are. This includes RINOS, Dems, and Tech Execs. We now have the green light. [All] who resist Us, are enemies of Our Constitution and must be treated as such.”

I do not regard this as legitimate free speech, and I do not want my government to ignore those who post these direct threats.  Posts like this are a danger to our nation, and hopefully, Congress has been shaken out of its head-in-the-sand attitude on white terrorism.

I remember two quotations on the limits to freedom from my childhood: “Your right to swing your fist stops at my nose” and “The right of free speech does not include yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Given the events at our Capitol a few weeks ago, it is time to reconsider our obligations in exercising our rights. A good starting point is found in the basic ethical tenet of medicine: “First, do no harm.”

Obviously, both hitting someone and causing a panicked rush in a limited space carry the probability of harm.  But given the sad history of “man’s inhumanity to man,” are there additional guidelines, even laws, that should be considered for speech?

Most of us know at least some of the guarantees in the first 10 amendments of our Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.  These were demanded by “Jeffersonian Democrats,” who feared an attempt by the “Federalists” to establish a monarchy or privileged aristocracy in the Thirteen Colonies. The Bill of Rights was only a short addition to the Constitution and has needed modification by additional amendments, laws, and court rulings to include formerly enslaved people, women, minorities, etc. 

For many years, our airwave media (regulated by the FCC) operated under the “Fairness Doctrine,” which required coverage of both sides of a major public issue. This was eliminated under President Reagan, in effect allowing one-sided, hyper-partisan TV and radio to develop.

I am certainly not saying that the Fairness Doctrine would be a solution to today’s problems: for instance, during the Vietnam War most TV coverage was (in effect) government propaganda. It was only after the My Lai massacre, the Pentagon Papers, and a growing realization we were losing the war that our news media truly covered both sides.

One solution to the blatant lies on some networks lies in the incipient lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems against attorney Sidney Powell, former President Trump’s lawyer, for the economic damage coming from her unreasonable and unsubstantiated claims. After this suit was filed, three different Fox News commentators “distanced” themselves from Powell’s bogus claims, perhaps at the prompting of Fox lawyers, to insulate Fox from a future lawsuit.

Lawsuits have already bankrupted a few right-wing organizations and their leadership, but it’s an unending ‘whack-a-mole’ process.

A more clear-cut definition of “harm,” to make such lawsuits easier, should start with a historical recognition of past wrongs in our nation, like Germany. Germany has banned the swastika and other symbols of its genocide.

We need to reconsider “free speech” when it directly threatens harm to a group. For too long the extreme right-wing has threatened individuals and groups with no consequences, except the rare prosecution for threatening to assassinate a president. 

Bryn Hammarstrom has lived in Tioga County for 50 years and has been active on environmental and social justice issues. He had retired as an RN but re-activated his license to return to hospital work part-time a year ago.

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